Doris Salcedo views her elegiac outdoor interventions as sites of collective mourning for her fellow Colombians as well as people from any country where violence is routine and the process of grieving is forgotten. Her sculptures and installations, however, as seen in this retrospective, conjure a sense of loss and displacement that has yet to be mitigated by mourning or closure.
Salcedo’s sculptures, many of them groupings of domestic furniture combined with concrete and steel, occupy the Guggenheim’s four Tower galleries. In these enclosed white spaces, the works evoke clusters of furniture typically found in old hospital wards and bureaucratic offices. Walking up from one Tower gallery to the next and seeing these somewhat surreal sculptures projects the eeriness of exploring an abandoned four-story house.
A group of untitled works from 1986 and ’87—the earliest of Salcedo’s efforts in the survey, incorporating materials that the artist salvaged from a Bogotá hospital—are the most disturbing in the exhibition. They call to mind furniture that has been rejiggered for torture. The jarring union of bed parts with a shelving unit screams pain.
The largest installation in the show, the haunting Plegaria Muda (2008–10), consisting of 83 tables paired with matching tables upended on them and real grass growing in dirt set between the two tables’ tops, and A Flor de Piel (2014), a sprawling floor piece of treated rose petals sewn together by hand, are the only two works that seem designed to encourage mourning in the way that Salcedo’s site-specific interventions do.
It is easy to overlook many of the details in Salcedo’s installations because they are so unexpected: a plastic baby secured to the underside of a steel cot, a zipper attached to the side of a wood cabinet. Finding them feels like a breath of hope, a trace of humanity in the darkness.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 76.